May 6, 2014

Hyde commissioners vote 3-2 in
favor of funding weekend lifeguards


The Hyde County commissioners last night approved paying for the two days of lifeguards that the National Park Service will not provide this summer.

In a 3-2 vote, the commissioners voted to pay out of Ocracoke Occupancy Tax monies the estimated $10,000 for weekend lifeguard coverage.

The Park Service announced late last year that it is being forced by budget cuts to stop providing lifeguards on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. In the recent past, the seashore provided lifeguards at three locations – Coquina Beach, Buxton Beach, and Ocracoke -- from Memorial Day until Labor Day.

After much public negative feedback, especially from Ocracoke, Barclay Trimble, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, began exploring providing lifeguards on the three beaches on weekdays, but not weekends.  He invited Dare and Hyde counties or other civic groups to provide the estimated $10,000 for weekends.

Late last week, Hyde County manager Bill Rich learned in a telephone conference call with Trimble that the seashore had received a bid from Surf Rescue, which is the name of its business under an LLC called Sandski, for two lifeguards from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“They’ve submitted a bid,” Trimble said today. “We’re trying to work with them.”

Rich said he’d had a phone conference Friday with Trimble and County Commissioners John Fletcher and Earl Pugh, Jr.

Trimble confirmed that today is the end of the bid period, and that if another group submits a bid the NPS will have to work through all the bids, which may delay the start day for lifeguards. He hopes the contract will be awarded May 16, he said.

Fletcher and Pugh last night voted against the action. Although he voted for the action, new commissioner Benjamin Simmons was concerned that once the county pays, it will always have to pay.

“People on Ocracoke are three-to-one against paying the Park Service,” Fletcher said, adding that the ones for it are mostly real estate people and that at first Trimble said there was no money for any lifeguards but now there is. 

Fletcher said after the meeting that the agreement needs to make it clear that this is a one-time deal. “It won’t happen again,” he said.

Rich noted during the discussion that U.S. Rep. Walter Jones’s office is still working on this and that although he dislikes having to set a precedent in paying for lifeguards, he personally is for it.

“I don’t want to be county manager when the first person drowns on the lifeguard beach without lifeguards there,” Rich said.  “It’s horrible that we have to do this, but, in all conscientiousness, we can’t not do it for the tourists.”

Rich noted that Dare County is not going to contract for the two days the Park Service won’t pay.

“That surprised me a lot,” he said.

In a phone interview today, Allen Burrus of Hatteras, vice-chairman of the Dare board, explained that the commissioners weren’t against the action but thought the Dare County Tourism Board was the proper entity to contract for lifeguards.

“I think it’s a great thing,” he said about the Hyde commissioners paying for two days of lifeguards.

Rudy Austin, president of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association, stressed today that the commissioners must make sure this is a one-time deal.

“The NPS should fully fund it next year,” he said. “They have the money.”

In other action, the commissioners voted to direct the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board to hold another meeting about funding the Ocracoke Health Center. That date has not been set.

Last week, the Tax Board voted not to fund the center’s proposed after-hours care for $89,500 and instead funded enhanced Emergency Medical Services for $180,000, Rich said in last night’s meeting.

“The decision by the Occupancy Tax Board is flawed,” said Dr. Erin Baker, the center’s medical director, during the first public comment period. “Maybe they don’t understand what we’re trying to do.”

Cheryl Balance, the center’s CEO, said in the second comment period that the request was to fund the extended hours the center wants to start as well as Saturday morning hours, limited on-call after hours over the weekend and a telephone triage service.

Sue Pentz, board chair, also spoke and said that by merging with the Engelhard Health Center and receiving a federal grant, the guidelines have changed forcing the center to change.

“When the Occupancy Tax Board turned this down, you don’t know what that did to our doctor and her staff,” Pentz said. “If you lose the clinic and doctor here, you’ll never get it back.”

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